Neither Gangster Film Nor Family Drama – But Both at the Same Time

in 36th Göteborg International Film Festival

by Katja Cicigoj

Let us make it clear right away: Northwest (Nordvest, 2012) might not be a particularly daring or experimental affair, either in style or content. However, this does not mean that it boils down to your average contemporary gangster film, taking place among white kids in a European capital. In fact, its conventionality might be seen as a way of avoiding certain genre or festival circuit expectations.

Director Michael Noer, who in the past directed mostly documentaries, confirms with his second feature film his rigorous commitment to realism as a filmmaking style and ethic. R (2011), Noer’s first feature, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Tobias Lindholm, might have been more of a shocker to festival audiences with its naturalistic portrayal of life in prison. Yet Northwest proves to be just as faithful to the Dogme-initiated tradition in Danish cinema. The film closely follows two young protagonists, real-life brothers and non-actors who deliver astounding performances: Casper (Gustav Dyekjaer Giese) and Andy (Oscar Dyekjaer Giese), who sink deeper and deeper into the criminal circles of local gangs in north-west Copenhagen.

The surprising thing about the picture is that it manages to remain a solid mixture of gangster film and realistic social drama, while eschewing most clichés of both genre and arthouse film. The film indeed portrays ‘the dark side’ of Copenhagen, except there’s nothing dark about it: natural light and location-shooting produces a sunlit image of the district, as if no burglaries or gang-fights were going on, while Copenhagen night life gleams with neon signs and dance-floor strobe lights. The life and activities of the gangs are not too secretive — everything happens in the open, as a matter-of-fact way of life. Furthermore, Noer manages to escape two major traps common to films dealing with this issue: Casper’s growing involvment with crime when switching gangs (from committing burglaries of well-off households for an Arab gang to drug-dealing, ferrying prostitutes and fighting the previous gang for a bikers’ affiliation) indeed turns out to be a pathway to hell, yet Noer avoids either pointing a judgemental finger or portraying gang life as luxurious and exciting.

And if Casper’s warm and responsible relationship with his younger brother, as well as his mother and little sister, offers some of the most heartfelt moments in the film, to reduce Northwest’s merits to showing that even young gangsters have a soft spot for their family members would be both reductive and far too sentimental. Northwest excels precisely in not succumbing to melodrama, feel-good action film, or the shock-novelty of youth violence and political incorrectness. Noer’s picture remains a balanced account of a young person striving to survive and possibly create a better life for himself and his loved ones, and the psychological hardship he has to endure in the process. In this respect, willingly or not, Northwest might strike some as a socially engaged film, even if it is devoid of any explicit political commentary: for what traverses ethnicities, genders and generations in this film is precisely the socio-economic conditions which both drive the protagonists towards crime, and even leave their mark on the hierarchy of the crime world itself. This keeps the film at a distinct remove from a traditional moralising perspective: for clearly, as it turns out for Casper, smoking pot with your little brother is not the same as getting him involved in gang business; robbing rich people’s houses is not the same as taking a person’s life — even if that person is a gangster out to kill you.

Edited by Alison Frank